Saturday, January 16, 2016

Hello, Blogger, My Old Friend ...

I've come to talk to you again. I'm failing abjectly at my various resolutions to blog more or at least on a more regular basis. It wasn't the fall I thought it would be, and the winter is shaping up about the same. Extra projects at work (though one is so much fun that I have to make sure I get other projects underway or done before I start this one), projects taking much, much longer than they usually do, and so on. One of the prices I pay for being able to work part-time, flexible hours, from home is that I pretty much do as I'm told. Anyway...

Back in August, I saw a Travelzoo blurb about a bargain winter three-night trip to Iceland. Iceland. Been there, loved that. The husband was up for it, so I booked us for January 11-14, before the husband has to start teaching. Our flights left from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which is a three-hour drive with no stoppages around the Washington, D.C. beltway. We booked a hotel for the night before we flew out and for the night we got back. This let us leave the car somewhere for free and reduced the stress of driving up too quickly or driving back too tired. It was a good call.

I said the trip was a bargain. At least I would call $649 per person for round-trip air fare and three nights in a hotel in downtown Reykjavik a bargain. Why was it that cheap? A big reason is that the air part was not on Icelandair but on WOW, one of the new, cut-rate carriers on which you pay for almost everything separately. For example, the base fare allows you to carry on one (1) bag that weighs less that 5 kilos (11 pounds). If you want a heavier carry-on, but still only one, you pay more. To check a bag, you pay. You pay for a seat assignment, too, and for any food or drink items. The trip price included one checked bag weighing no more than 20 kilos (44 pounds) for each of us. Until we learned that, we were actually planning on going with one heavier carry-on each. Instead, we ended up each checking one bag, the two of which together weighed less than the 20 kilos each. We kept our carry-ons less than 5 kilos and willingly paid the $30 ($15 for each of us) each way to be able to sit together.

I must admit that there were people who looked at us askance when they heard we were flying WOW. Some even told us various reasons why we shouldn't. To all those folks, WOW was wonderful, and we'd fly it again in a minute. For one, while they don't enforce size limits on your carry-on, they do enforce the weight and number. After your checked luggage, if any, is weighed at check-in, the clerk weighs your carry-on. Ones that meet their appropriate weight limit are marked with a tag. Our first smile with WOW was noticing that this tag read "You shall pass." Let's hear it for channeling Monty Python. If you present your boarding pass to get on the plane and have two bags, you are turned away and told to consolidate everything into one bag. If you can't, you have to check one of them. No carry-on with a personal item on WOW. One carry-on, one only.

As you might imagine, everyone's having only one carry-on makes boarding so much smoother. More people put carry-ons underneath the seat in front of them. Passengers aren't shuffling back and forth around their seats looking for places to put their bags. They're more likely to be laughing at what is on the drape at the top of each seat, "Hi. I am your seat" or "Be my guest." If you happen to be looking in the seat-back pocket for the safety card, you might even like the air-sickness bag printed with a "Vomit-Meter." Once in the air, the flight attendants take a cart down the aisle giving passengers the chance to purchase food and/or beverages. Until garbage collection at the end of the flight, there are no more cart runs. This makes it much easier to relax and possibly get some sleep.

With so much going for it, something had to go wrong on the flight over, right? The plane was almost at capacity, meaning that there were no two seats together to which I could request for us to move to when the woman sitting to my right, in the window seat, spent most of the flight, coughing and vomiting in her sleep--I kid you not--into a large plastic shopping bag she had with her. Needless to say, I got very little sleep on that flight and was quite happy to land.

Keflavik Airport is about 45 minutes outside Reykjavik; one catches the Fly-Bus to get into the city. There really wasn't much to see on the ride it given the hour of 8:45 a.m. local time. I did a few quick photos of nothing just to capture how dark it was, Here's one of those.
Something of a non sequitur in terms of my photos. I thought long and hard about carrying my Canon DSLR with a long, zoom lens, which I used in Vietnam and on our 2010 trip here. It's big and heavy, and I worry about hitting it on something. I then thought long and hard about taking the smaller Canon with the most amazing zoom lens, which I used in Australia. Then I thought just how many times have I looked at the photos taken on those trips or how many times I'd used them for anything other than Facebook or one of my blogs. I decided to take a pocket-size Pentax point-and-shoot and not take as many photos. I didn't want to feel as though I didn't experience something because I was too busy trying to photograph it. The husband also took a pocket point-and-shoot, a Nikon.

 On our first trip to Iceland (in 2010), we didn't see snow in Reykjavik until halfway through our time there. This time, we landed in the snow and watched it snow for the first full day we were there. I was glad I'd worn my water-resistant hiking boots rather than the running shoes I often wear.
When you arrive at a hotel at 9:00 or 9:30 a.m., you can't expect your room to be ready. The very nice desk clerk instructed us to go to the breakfast buffet before it ended at 10:00. It wasn't included with what we'd paid for, so I figured the charge would be on the bill at check-out. But no, there may be not such thing as a free lunch, but we got a free breakfast.

We actually were able to get into a room right after breakfast. We stashed our bags and decided to go to a place we had not visited on our last trip, Hallgrimskirkja. This is sometimes referred to as a cathedral, but it is in fact a Lutheran church.
(photo by the husband)
You can see some unsnowy photos, including one taken from the front, here. This site also includes information about what can only be described as an unbelievable pipe organ.
This, coupled with the basic huge interior is likely why people refer to it as a cathedral. It has much in common with the cathedrals I've toured elsewhere in Europe.
(photo by the husband)

For a small price, you can go to the top of the amazing spire. It's an elevator for most of the way followed by some steps to the highest level. The view would be more colorful but no less dramatic on a sunny or at least non-snowing day.
At the very bottom center is a statue of Leif Erikkson that was there before the church was built. It was a gift from the United States in 1930, honoring the 1000th anniversary of the first meeting of Iceland's parliament.  

When the husband and I visit a city, we like to walk and use mass transit or a cab only when absolutely necessary. Despite the snow and cold, it was not necessary here. We spent a good bit of the rest of the afternoon walking, stopping for a lunch of carrot-coconut soup and fresh bread. I am going to have to look for a recipe, because that soup was quite tasty.

There were a few things I could not keep from photographing.

I've always wondered if famous people or fictional characters from the U.S. know that they are often used as marketing tools abroad. Supposedly, the Lebowski Bar has a bowling lane in it.

What I don't know is if any of the movie cast or crew has ever been there on a promotional or personal visit.

And if The Big Lebowski rates its own establishment, can Chuck Norris be left out?

And if Chuck Norris were to walk in, would the theme music from Walker, Texas Ranger play in the background?

Included in the cost of the trip was a bus tour outside the city in search of the Northern Lights. That tour was supposed to be on our first night there, but was cancelled due to the heavy cloud cover. We rebooked for the next night, in hope that the forecasts of clear skies and high auroral activity were both correct. To get ready, we spent that next day, what else, walking around Reykjavik, We left the hotel just before 11:00 a.m.
Our plan was to walk to the National Maritime Museum. Along the way, we encountered a lesson in satellite telecommunications. If you go far enough north, the dishes actually must point down in order to receive the signal.
We also encountered some graffiti I did not expect to see there.
The Maritime Museum was quite good. We arrived there just in time to take the extra tour of the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel the Odinn (the d should be curved with a line through it, but I have no idea how to get that to print here.) The Odinn was active in all three of the Cod Wars between Iceland and Britain. While I took some photos on the tour, they are mostly of engines and engine parts that I know nothing about. I do, though, know that if you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball. I just don't know if I could actually throw this wrench.
There was a special exhibit of Icelandic seawomen that I found very interesting. I especially liked the two poems that were printed at the start. 

The second one, especially, appeals to me, especially the line about laughing in the face of all danger. If I were to say that often enough, might I be able really to do it?

We got on the bus for the Northern Lights Tour between 8:30 and 9:00, The sky was clear, and the guide said the aurora forecast was still good. The plan was to go to Pingvellir, about 50 minutes out of Reykjavik. Anglicized as Thingvellir, this was the place the first Icelandic parliament met in 930. As we traveled, the guide explained a bit about the Northern Lights and why they happen. The physicist husband said she only got one detail wrong, and she got at least one right that he did not think would be mentioned. When we arrived at Pingvellir, there was another bus there. We got off the bus carefully as the ground was quite icy. Several people had brought tripods and a large array of photographic equipment. Having photographed the aurora in 2010, I this time wanted to just watch it.

Besides the icy ground, there was a brisk breeze making the wind chill quite noticeable. There was an aurora visible, stretching from one horizon to the other and passing directly overhead. It was not an obvious one; you really needed to know what to look for, After spending quite a long time, more than an hour, looking up, most of us got back on the bus to try to warm up. After 15 or 20 minutes, someone stuck their head in the door and said we might want to all come back out. It was readily apparent why we should. What had been a very faint band resembling thin clouds as much as anything was now a bright yellowish-green band with sides that pulsed in and out and with swirls of green to the outside like the bottom of the letter j. The green band resembled a broad brush stroke on which someone had taken a fine-tipped red pen and highlighted small areas along the two sides and again where the stroke hit the horizons.

If I knew what to list, I would give the link to the photo album on the Facebook page of Reykjavik Excursions, the group who ran the tour. Instead, I will put up one photo that I "borrowed" from their Facebook album. It's pretty representative of what we saw as midnight approached.
(photo from Reykjavik Excursions Facebook album)
This was the most active aurora we've seen on our various aurora-hunting trips. I know that I saw the Northern Lights as a child growing up in Montana, but I don't really recall how they looked then. The Canadian husband has seen many more auroras than I have, and he said this was right up there with the best. It was definitely worth the cost of the trip. If we had done nothing else on the trip, this alone would have been worth the journey.

It was also worth staying up until almost 2:00 a.m. after getting back to the hotel, emailing a couple of people, and generally winding down from the rush. We started a bit slowly the next day. The plan was to look for a knitting pattern for an Icelandic hat, followed by the National Museum and the Phallological Museum. Yes, that last one is basically the Penis Museum. I did find two pattern books to buy; these turned out to be the most expensive things we bought. I did not look for a pattern for this sweater
since I know that Biscuit would refuse to wear it or, if she were to wear it, she would not move until the sweater had been removed.

The National Museum was the furthest away from the hotel of all the places we visited. We didn't mind since walking was all the exercise we were getting. The day was quite sunny, offering the chance to show where the sun is at noon in mid-January.
The museum offered an almost-overwhelming look at the history of Iceland from 800 to the present. The exhibits were excellent, though, and well worth the long walk. By the time we were walking back, it was around 4:00 in the afternoon, offering another look at the sun's angle, this time from behind us.
(photo by the husband)
We did visit the Phallological Museum, more to be able to say we did than anything else. I will spare readers of this blog post the photographs I posted to my Facebook page. One of my Facebook friends guessed that the museum must have been started by a male. She was correct. I would recommend a visit only if, as with us, you want to be able to say you went there.

And so ended our quickie, two full days and three nights visit to Iceland. We saw interesting things, ate some good food, and drank some good beer. The flight home was even better than the flight over given that the person sitting next to me spent the time watching Battlestar Galactic on his laptop rather than vomiting into a shopping bag. We were glad to have made plans to spend the night at a hotel near BWI and drive home the next morning after rush hour.  I'd do it all again in a heartbeat if the timing were right.